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Constructing populism in French arenas: an approach trough circulation

In this blog entry, I summarize the content of the chapter titled “Populism on the Move: Tracking the Circulation of Populist(S) and Populism(S) in France's Parliamentary, Mass Media, and Twitter Arenas”, which will be published in the coming months in the book Discourse Approaches to an Emerging Age of Populist Politics by Springer, edited by Isabel Iñigo-Mora and Cristina Lastres López.


The term populism has been debated in the academic world for decades. However, despite attracting academic interest for years, we still know little about how social actors such as journalists, politicians and ordinary citizens conceive it, how the word circulates between different arenas of public discussion and how its meaning is constructed. Understanding this circulation is crucial, as it is through movement and replication that contrasting and similar conceptions of a particular topic gain visibility in public discourse.


This chapter uses a coding grid analysis to study the circulation of the term populis* in three arenas of public discussion in France: the parliamentary arena, the mass media arena, and Twitter (now X). Our analysis aims to shed light on the dynamics of information flow, actor participation, and interdependence patterns among the studied arenas.


1.      Media Arena.

In our media arena dataset, populis* appeared 538 times, with 113 of these instances coming from politicians. Mass media predominantly circulated uses occurrences generated within their own boundaries, showing a tendency toward self-circulation. For instance, the newspaper Le Parisien circulated its own content up to ten times, indicating a strong self-circulation dynamic. Surprisingly, only one use of populis* circulated from the parliamentary arena to the media arena, questioning the presumed interdependence between the two arenas.


2.      Parliamentary Arena.

The parliamentary dataset, composed of 161 occurrences pronounced at the Assemblée Nationale, revealed that populis* was exclusively used by politicians, with La République en Marche (LREM) employing it most frequently. Although the term was used with various discursive functions, its circulation was limited to specific debates, revealing a certain degree of isolation within the parliamentary arena itself. That is, the word populis* circulated within debates, but not from other arenas.


3.      Twitter.

The Twitter dataset, containing 849 appearances of populis*, presents an asymmetry in circulation. Despite Twitter acting as both sender and receiver arena -this meaning that uses of populis* circulated from and to Twitter-, circulation between the parliamentary arena and Twitter was minimal. However, the platform facilitated the participation of diverse actors, with ordinary citizens playing an active role in circulation -as opposed to the other arenas studied-. The retweet function was the primary mode of circulation on Twitter and facilitated ordinary citizens to reproduce content. The most popular tweets did not conform to a specific actor type, highlighting Twitter's role as an arena for diverse voices.


The comparative analysis of the results allows us to draw some conclusions. First, there is an asymmetric interdependence between arenas of public discussion, with Twitter and the mass media arena acting as both senders and receivers of uses of populis*. In contrast, the parliamentary arena showed limited circulation of the occurrences of populis*, with barely no uses circulated from or towards the other arenas. This emphasizes the need for individualized analyses of each arena. Second, we observed strong self-circulation dynamics in the three arenas, most notably in the media and parliamentary arenas. Digital newspapers favored the dissemination of their own content, while parliamentary debates prioritized the circulation of usages generated within the same debate. Third, regarding actor participation in constructing the collective meaning of populis*, we observed different trends. As we expected, politicians were the only actor circulating the word in the parliamentary arena, while journalists played a key role in the media arena. On Twitter, however, ordinary citizens and bloggers also received higher attention and their conceptions of populis* were amongst the ones that circulated the most. That is, the platform allowed diverse voices to contribute significantly to the circulation of populis* and thus provided an accessible space for ordinary users to shape the collective meaning of the word. In this sense, although not inherently counter-hegemonic, Twitter facilitated the entry of new voices into the discourse, contributing to a more diverse construction of meaning.


In summary, the chapter sheds light on the complex dynamics of term circulation in contemporary public discourse, emphasizing the need for nuanced analyses of different arenas and of the collective meaning of the word shaped by various actors. This research model, combining the concept of arenas of public discussion with a coding grid analysis, provides a solid framework for studying term circulation in different contexts, as well as collective meaning construction. Future research could rely on this methodology to explore the construction of the meaning of populis* in various countries or to investigate the circulation and construction of other terms with distinctive meanings in different communicative contexts.


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